GOP’s Debate Theater

Did Mitt Romney finally best frontrunner Rick Perry? Daily Beast contributors weigh in on which candidates came out in front at Thursday night’s Fox News/Google debate.

09.23.11 3:43 AM ET

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets guests after speaking at a pre debate rally sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, before tonight's GOP debate, on September 22, 2011 in Orlando Florida. Later tonight GOP presidential candidates will face off in a debate, and Saturday participate Florida GOP's Presidency V Straw Poll.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets guests after speaking at a pre-debate rally on Sept. 22, 2011 in Orlando, Florida.

Mitt Romney demonstrated on Thursday night that he has the ability and skills to win the Republican nomination, and in so doing presents himself as a compelling challenger to President Obama.

The entrance of Rick Perry into the race, initially seen as a serious blow to the Romney candidacy, has proved to be an extraordinary benefit. The Perry candidacy has provided a focus for the former Massachusetts governor’s efforts, and in the exchanges on Social Security, on tuition subsidies in Texas for illegal immigrants, and on Romney’s own writings and positions, he won a clear and decisive victory in a forum that was hardly designed to provide for that outcome.


If the latest GOP debate produced no decisive winner, it did indicate a clear loser—Rick Perry, who looked and sounded ill-prepared, writes Michael Medved.

Aside from their occasional entertainment value, GOP presidential debates serve to answer one crucial question above all: which of the candidates would do the best job in confronting Barack Obama in a series of fateful televised encounters beginning about one year from today?

After Thursday night’s exchange in Orlando sponsored by Google and Fox News, it’s safe to say that a number of contenders could probably hold their own with the president of the United States, including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain (who seemed especially confident and likeable)—and above all, Mitt Romney, whose improvement as a TV performer since the 2008 campaign demonstrates an encouraging capacity for growth.


Wanted: Crowd Control
by Paul Begala

Romney was up, Perry was down, Bachmann flopped, but the night’s real loser was the audience, which once again showed a stunning capacity for cruelty, says Paul Begala.

As happened in previous debates, the audience in the Fox News/Google debate stole the show—and shocked the conscience. When a gay soldier asked a question, the audience booed. They booed a man who is risking his life for their freedom. Rarely have I seen a more unpatriotic public display. Not long thereafter, Mitt Romney gave a sappy paean to cheap patriotism, saying we're the only country whose citizens put their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem. Fine. But shouldn't someone have spoken up for that brave soldier? That would have taken real courage and shown real patriotism. Just as no candidate spoke up in prior debates when audience members cheered executions and yelled, "Let him die!" in response to Wolf Blitzer's question about a young, uninsured man who would die without health care, the entire field was gutless and the audience was downright disgusting.

If the boos went according to shameful type, the applause lines were pre-programmed as well. The EPA and Department of Education were vilified ("Yaaaayyyy!!!"), President Obama was labeled a "socialist" ("Hooooraaaaayyy!"), taxes should be zero ("Huzzzzaaaaah!"), foreign aid should be eliminated ("Yipppeeeee!!"), and Israel must be supported ("Whoooppppeee!...errr, umm, wait: do they get foreign aid?").

Let's start with the frontrunners. Mitt Romney turned in another strong debate performance. Gone were the pre-planned canned lines of the early debates. In their place was a confident and aggressive critique of Rick Perry, and tough counterpunches ("I actually wrote my book.").


Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, listens as Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement during a debate Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, Pool)

Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Photo

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, listens as Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement during a debate, Sept. 22, 2011, in Orlando, Fla.

Obama’s Fighting Chance
by Michael Tomasky

If Obama is dreading a run for reelection with the economy in the tank, these candidates must be easing his mind, says Michael Tomasky.

Rick Perry, it’s now coming clear, isn’t all that good at this. He was reasonably competent at the first debate he participated in, not as good at the second, and in this one, meh. His packaged attack lines against Mitt Romney came across as far too rehearsed, and Romney did a reasonably good job of swatting most of them away or answering them back. I wouldn’t want to be in Barack Obama’s position, trying to run for reelection with the unemployment rate so high; at the same time, if I were Obama, I’d look at Romney and Perry and think, “I can take these guys.” They’re just not charismatic people.


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Lots of Noise, Little Movement
by Matt Latimer

Romney failed to knock out Perry, who failed to knock out Romney. Matt Latimer on the status quo smackdown in Orlando.

Of course the obvious winner of Thursday night’s GOP debate was James Spader. It is hard to imagine anyone (besides me and some other sadsack political junkies) not turning immediately to The Office after the first few minutes of tonight’s uneventful, technoweird, same old same old debate.

Yet again the evening was Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and the rest.  Nobody else made a dent in the existing dynamic (with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman’s electric yellow tie).  For the most part, a lot of the candidates seemed to have been asleep.  I did learn Herman Cain had cancer, but from Fox News panelist Chris Wallace, not from Cain, who remains stubbornly determined to divulge nothing about himself while seeking our votes.  Even Ron Paul was a dull version of himself.  And in case anyone wondered, yes, everyone still thinks President Obama is a socialist.  Worse yet the candidates had to contend with distracting new gimmicks, like Google “word clouds,” video questions from random nobodies across America, and an annoying time-keeping bell that sounded like a computer that had been left on too long.  Why can't we have a debate where, oh I don’t know, panelists just asked questions?

So did Romney knock out Perry? Nope. Did Perry ruin Romney? Nope. Does anything else matter? Nope.  (Although there was one chilling moment last night when we had to face the prospect of Perry selecting Herman Cain’s severed head as his running mate.)



Signs of Life for Huntsman
by McKay Coppins

The former Utah governor looked mild and non-confrontational at the Orlando debate—but a poll shows him gaining ground.

Jon Huntsman could have stolen the spotlight on Thursday night, but chances are he didn’t want to.

Per the rules of the Fox News/Google debate, whenever a candidate attacked an opponent by name, the target of the criticism was given 30 seconds to respond. That meant that if you wanted to get into a slugfest with one of the top-tier guys, all you had to do was throw a single punch and all of a sudden you were in the ring. Rick Santorum took full advantage of this rule, gobbling up airtime and elevating himself as he went after Rick Perry’s relatively moderate immigration record. Herman Cain enjoyed similar success by engaging Mitt Romney on the tax code. But Huntsman kept to himself.

On education, he was alone in tying school performance to global competitiveness (a position likely colored by his many years serving in diplomatic capacities abroad). When asked if he stood with the majority of Americans in supporting a tax on millionaires, he said simply, “This is the worst time to raise taxes and everyone knows that.” And while he did briefly trade blows with Rick Santorum on international relations, Huntsman stuck to one of the overarching messages of his campaign in arguing that in order for America to be strong abroad, it needed to have a sound economy. He sounded, in other words, like a standard-issue also-ran: articulate, smart, and a little bland—and that’s probably just what he wanted.



Rick Perry’s Debate Fumble
by Michelle Goldberg

The Texas governor is supposed to be a ruthless campaigner, but his performance was inarticulate and amateurish—in contrast to Romney’s smooth string of banalities, says Michelle Goldberg.

Well, that was depressing. There were only two surprises amid the festival of clichés and mendacity that was Thursday night’s Republican debate. The first was the crowd’s angry booing of Stephen Hill, a gay soldier serving in Iraq. Supporting the troops, apparently, only goes so far. The second was how poorly Rick Perry performed. Yes, we’ve already learned that he’s not very good at these things. But in Texas, he has a reputation as a ruthless campaigner, which makes his fumbling amateurishness on the national stage seem odd. At one point, he tried a line on Mitt Romney that was obviously rehearsed in advance, and flubbed it so badly that I almost felt bad for him—you could see the panic and frustration on his face.

“I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with,” he said. “Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment, was before he was before the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade, before he was against verse Roe versus Wade he was for Race to the Top. He’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it.”

Of course, the Republican base doesn’t demand articulateness from its candidates. People like me might have sneered at the garbled syntax of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, but that only boosted their anti-elitist credibility. Still, Perry seemed to lose the crowd’s sympathy when he admitted that building a wall along the United States’ southern border isn’t feasible, and he couldn’t explain away his record on Texas’s Dream Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public universities.



Best Moments From the GOP Debate
by The Daily Beast Video

The GOP presidential hopefuls went head-to-head Thursday for the Fox News/Google Republican debate. From Ron Paul playing to the crowd to Perry and Romney’s duel, watch the video of the highlights.

Ron Paul Plans to Use His Veto Power

Ron Paul isn’t going to be easily forgotten. Paul made his first answer of the night short and sweet when asked a question via YouTube by viewers in Spencer, Ind. Brandy and Michael wanted to know what the presidential hopeful would do to uphold the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, keep the federal government from overstepping its boundaries, and leave the governing to the states. Paul stated simply, with time to kill, that as president he’d veto any bill that violates the amendment designed to keep the federal government in check.